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[Commentary] Breaking the Intellectual Impasse: Metamodernism in SociologyAbstract



This commentary explores the place and role of metamodernism in sociological inquiry. Its purpose is twofold: to introduce sociologists to this novel mode of thinking and determine whether current scholarship is metamodern in style and approach. The commentary finds that metamodernism is indeed present in some of the most-cited scholarship in the field, though not all scholarship can be characterized as such. The conclusion briefly describes how a metamodern approach to scholarly inquiry can help sociologists overcome the existing deadlock – often paralyzing – between postmodern and modern scholarly practice through a reassessment of values, investigative inquiry, and a common goal of prosperity for humans and nonhumans in society.

Keywords: Metamodernism, postmodernism, modernism, intellectual paralysis, modes of thought


Introduction

This paper explores the contemporary relevance of the two dominant “isms” in sociological inquiry: modernism and postmodernism. I argue that these two frames of reference remain relevant but have run their course as dominant modes of thinking in sociology. In their place we now see the emergence of metamodernism, a mode of thought that draws on elements found in both modernist and postmodernist frames of reference. As I will demonstrate, postmodernism is a way of thinking that can be detected in scholarship that is reflexive while typically also oscillating between modern and postmodern perspectives. I argue that this development is beneficial, as it invites sociologists to move beyond dichotomous academic camps of thought which have been polarizing and, especially among younger academics, intellectually paralyzing.


What Lens do you Use?

What motivates people to frame their experiences ideologically? A lens such as modernism can be a powerful intellectual resource around which to rally: a means of explaining the rationality of social action, much as Weber attempted in his Theory of Social and Economic Organization (Weber, 1947). It is difficult to refute the assertion that (most of the time) groups and individuals in society act according to principles wrapped in rationalistic and empirical narratives. Nevertheless, the appeal of the postmodern mantra of self-reflection and deconstruction of narrative is also understandable; reverse-engineering social constructs is a powerful means by which groups and individuals can raise awareness of previously hidden asymmetries. The discovery of such asymmetries can be used, in part, to tackle and critically address hegemonic narratives that shape daily life. However, should individuals engaged in sociology question whether the construction and deconstruction of narratives is a worthwhile pastime? The answer is a resounding "yes!". Finding meaning in social issues, using our sociological imagination, while also critically reflecting on the inherent anxieties surrounding our approach to issues is perhaps the most effective way to assume a balanced and nuanced understanding of what happens in society.


Many young intellectuals are paralyzed by the rifts and tensions created by (older and therefore dominant) modernist thinkers and their postmodernist counterparts, whom Noam Chomsky classifies as French intellectuals responsible for a lack of clarity in thinking and the dissemination of “crazy [and harmful] ideas” (Open Culture, 2018). Of course, the first examples of such French intellectuals that come to mind tend to be Derrida (1974), Foucault (1972), and Bourdieu (1991) — roughly in that order. Whether the claim that their publications and discussions are responsible for the obfuscation of thought is valid is irrelevant. What is clear from such a claim is that modernists and postmodernists are at odds with one another and, as a result, sides need to be taken. My assertion is that sides should not be taken. Sociologists can learn — and indeed do learn — from modernists like Weber and Habermas and postmodern thinkers such as Bourdieu, who has a particularly powerful grip over researchers in the sociology of education and, to a lesser extent, the sociology of language.


In order to resolve these tensions, we need to learn from both streams of thought, as they offer us dynamic and powerful tools with which to study society. Here a metamodernist approach to social issues can be adopted. Sociologists should adopt a new lens which allows them to benefit from both rational, empirical, and positivist approaches while also incorporating reflexivity and introspection. When conducting research, people seek meaning; meaning is made; but meaning itself has drawbacks and vulnerabilities of which we need to be aware. Sociologists can move forward by studying narratives while reflecting on the theoretical and empirical weaknesses of overarching or singular narratives. In essence, I am arguing for a harmonization of approaches — a middle-road that can be traversed by those who have freed themselves from the intoxicating grip of modernity and the dizzying depths of deconstruction.


Many sociologists are conscious of the distinctions between modernist and postmodernist approaches (Matthewman & Hoey, 2006; McLennan, 1995; Mouzelis, 1996). For instance, Krause (2021) delves into the reflexivity involved in contemplating and delineating such trains of thought. However, she falls short of moving beyond the divide and concludes with a significant but diluted observation concerning the need to “remedy geographic, case-based, and school-based provincialism” (Krause 2021, p. 13). In other words, she eschews epistemological tribalism but fails to offer a meaningful alternative. Ironically, the reflexive nature of her paper (titled “Sociological Reflexivity”) is indicative of a metamodernistic approach to sociological inquiry.


A Gander at How This Might Work

If I presented you with structural, systemic, and institutionalized racism as a social issue, how would you approach this timeless problem? You may seek the root causes and contributing factors impacting the outcomes of individuals and groups (Tilcsik, 2020). You may examine policy and legislation that implicitly favours individuals belonging to particular ethnic groups (Faber, 2020). You may even seek to understand how race is constructed and reconstructed to suit narratives of hegemony and domination (Davenport, 2016). In all of these cases, you may find varying degrees of racism (or none at all, or even misperceptions thereof) in the society in question. None of these approaches are fundamentally flawed. However, they lack a key element: oscillation. In metamodernism, oscillation is a dynamic and often intellectually fulfilling process involving regular movement between narrative-oriented or scientific analysis and reflexive practice exposing the subjectivity inherent in the scientific method. I liken it to a pendulum, where the two opposing lenses are touched upon and utilized in order to keep intellectual inquiry moving. This pendulum may seem binary in nature but it is more of a continuum or oscillating trajectory which allows us to broaden our view of social issues such as racism through a comprehensive though inherently limited perspective. The purpose of oscillation is not to endlessly move between two modes of thinking but to find a path that allows us to overcome (post)modernism. After all, an issue as timeless as racism demands no less than the complete mobilization of our intellectual capabilities. And it is crucial that we make every attempt to address a social issue as critical as racism.


A simple starting point in metamodernism is outlined in Vermeulen and van den Akker (2010), who describe metamodernism as “epistemologically with […], ontologically between […], and historically beyond” modernism and postmodernism (p. 2). In other words, metamodernism serves as an object of analysis and a framework through which analysis occurs. It is a new mode of thinking that embraces both modernism and postmodernism. To avoid confusion, allow me to clearly explain two key characteristics of metamodernism:

 

Oscillation: This concept refers, in practice, to regular movements between modern aims and a postmodern indifference. This may be termed as the “dialectic in motion […] overcoming or undermining hitherto fixed or consolidated positions” within mainstream academia (van den Akker and Venmeulen 2017, p. 6). By deepening our engagement with and drawing on both paradigms of thought, we can overcome the limitations of both. It is a harmonization of these approaches that generates new and useful approaches in sociological inquiry.

 

Reflexivity: This concept refers, in practice, to the self-awareness of the researcher throughout the research process. We may ask questions such as “why am I conducting this research?”, “How may my involvement shape or impact the outcomes of my activities?”, “what do I personally hope to achieve through by conducting this or that study?”, and “how might this study benefit others?”.

 

While somewhat of a generalization, scholars have referred to modernism, postmodernism, and metamodernism using three distinct labels: utopic syntaxis, dystopic parataxis, and atopic metaxis. In other words, modernism finds its expression in grand narratives, postmodernism in nihilistic scepticism, and metamodernism in boundary-less ordering and disordering. Though these labels can be somewhat confusing, they do serve as a useful starting point when introducing the similarities and differences between these streams of thought. Baciu et al. (2015) provide a relatively succinct overview of what metamodernism represents: “anticipatory and proactive thinking. ‘how will it be in the future if’ […] a positive, meditative, reflective, logical, active and proactive [mode of] thinking” (p. 35).One


Step Forward, One Step Back

When we dance around issues, they rarely ever seem to get resolved. However, if we don't dance around issues at all, the chances of us even realizing they exist are small to non-existent. The major issue in sociology, as in other fields, is that we tend to dance, walk, run, and sleep in the same pair of shoes. We would be nimbler if we learnt how to change out of and into different pairs of shoes. What I am trying to say is that the dogmatism and borderline fanaticism of modern and postmodern trains of thought have enslaved and paralyzed thinkers. They have locked individuals in cells where groupthink is encouraged and praised at the expense of nuanced investigations of social issues. In the academe at least, the postmodern condition is just as real as the modern condition (Lyotard, [1979] 1984). Fortunately, it is a condition that we are beginning to transcend as new approaches to knowledge generation begin to emerge.


Josephson-Storm (2021) argues that knowledge generation in the social sciences and humanities should be perceived as a “way of life directed toward human flourishing” (p. 255). While it is sometimes difficult to openly acknowledge the contributions made by sociologists without being overly critical, it is important to be aware of the gains that can potentially be made if individuals commit themselves to simple goals such as happiness, equality/ equity, and life satisfaction. Though the simplicity of these goals may be laughable, they are indeed laudable goals worthy of our time and efforts. Metamodernists would argue that though we may never achieve these goals to the extent that is hoped, working toward them is in itself a worthwhile task. A “fear of critique” within sociology, therefore, should be abandoned if we are to build something positive and new.


Metamodernism in Current Scholarship

If we examine the most-cited sociology papers appearing in well-established sociology journals, do they contain traces of metamodernism in terms of their style and approach? In other words, can researchers begin to characterize scholarship in mainstream sociology as metamodern? In order to answer this question, I briefly examine three of the most-cited research articles published in leading journals between the years 2020-2023 (Table 1).


Table 1. Details of the Three Most-cited Research Articles in Sociology

Journal

Authors

Year of publication (volume, issue)

American Sociological Review

K. Kiley, S. Vaisey

2020 (vol 85, no 3)

Sociology

D. Bartram

2021 (vol 55, no 2)

Current Sociology

J. Sydow, A, Windeler

2020 (vol 68, no 4)

 

Sydow and Windeler (2020) raise quintessentially metamodernistic questions in their paper Temporary organizing and permanent contexts in Current Sociology. Their paper can be characterized as “dialectic in motion,” oscillating between discussions of permanence and temporariness. While the authors themselves do not describe their work as metamodernist – on the contrary, they cite and employ modernist scholarship by Weber and Giddens – their approach is undoubtedly metamodern. As they argue in their paper: “Focusing on the relationship between the temporary and the permanent opens the way to a better understanding of the more permanent contexts of organizing” while also grasping their impact on “temporary forms of coordination and their consequences” (Sydow and Windeler 2020, p. 481). The conscious movement between the transient and seemingly enduring indicates that these authors are in fact utilizing a metamodern lens in order to generate new insights in sociology.


A similar thing can be said of the approach adopted by Kiley and Vaisey (2020) in their paper Measuring stability and change in personal culture using panel data. In their outline of a statistical model for estimating changes in people’s attitudes and behavior over time, they separate “persisting change from non-persisting change” by fusing a pragmatist model (active updating) with a Bourdieusian model (settled dispositions) (Kiley & Vaisey, 2020, p. 479). In fact, they argue that there is room for both models, thereby encouraging for a movement between modernist and postmodernist models of personal change. Their model aims to also address the complex issue of generational versus individual (intragenerational) changes in personal attitudes and beliefs surrounding a myriad of social issues.


The work of Bartram (2021), however, cannot be described as metamodern, as it deals squarely with measuring life satisfaction through empirical analysis. There are no signs of reflexivity or oscillation between modern and postmodern frames of reference. Instead, this paper skillfully argues for the refinement of tools used in the statistical analysis of large datasets.


Pragmatism in another Guise?

Some may argue that oscillation and reflexivity offer a pragmatic solution to a complex issue. While this may be the case if we are discussing pragmatism as defined in conversational usage. Academically and intellectually, pragmatism was part and parcel of the modernist train of thought. It was – and continues to be – a useful attempt at bridging the divide between empirical and conceptual approaches to scholarship but rests squarely within a (post)modern frame of reference (Rorty, 1979). However, metamodernists do not need to concern themselves exclusively with questions regarding the divide between empirical and theoretical research in a positivistic sense. They can tackle a wide range of epistemological, ontological, and historical issues affecting societies by moving freely between the rational, positivist, and systematic and the introspective and reflexive. This is what colors the new approach to sociological inquiry; it is a multipurpose lens that is beginning to be discovered across the field perhaps partly as a result of its widespread acknowledgement and uptake in cognate disciplines such as anthropology, psychology, and education (Baciu et al., 2015; Bargár. 2021; Piro. 2018).


As Josephson-Storm (2021) contends, metamodernism is a response to the “decay of master narratives” which is “neither purely inward-gazing nor outward-assimilating" (p. 3). Its basis is a reassessment of values, a novel understanding of the purposes of investigative inquiry, and the formation of disciplines that work toward a common goal of prosperity for humans and nonhumans alike. Though we have seen how not all sociological scholarship can be classified as metamodern, the question arises whether or not sociologists acknowledge and engage with this potentially promising mode of thought as a means of breaking the intellectual impasse facing many scholars.


Declaration of Interests

The author has no financial, professional, or other conflicts of interest to declare.


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